Dirty Little Exclamation Point

If it were in my power to strap the exclamation point to a marble slab, slowly slice it open from navel to sternum and watch it twist and squirm in agony as its guts spilled out onto the cold stone floor of my sacrificial scenario, I would do it.

That may be overstated it a little.  It’s not that I’m angry with the exclamation point. There’s a time and a place for it.  It’s more that I’m sick of seeing it in every email I read.   Just the other day, I received my monthly email from my accountant conveying this message:

“Dear Mr. David Wecker.  Here’s your monthly invoice! … We appreciate your prompt payment and thank you for your business!”

As if I had been holding my breath, waiting for my invoice to arrive. Whee!  My monthly fee for accounting services!  Finally!  YESSSSS!!!!!!!   Thank you, God!!!!!!!!!!!!

I’m not nearly so excitable.  Neither is my accountant.  He’s a decent person, level-headed, feet on the ground, a real numbers guy. But if all you had was that message to go by, you’d think he was a mincing prat, swept up in a wave of unreasoned enthusiasm.

I’m an OK writer, not a great one.  But the greats agree with me.  Said F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Cut out all these exclamation points” because “an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”  Elmore Leonard’s rule was to use no more than two or three exclamation points per 100,000 words of prose.

And you may have heard that, in the entirety of “The Old Man and the Sea,” Ernest Hemingway used only one exclamation point.  Can’t tell you where it is, but that’s what all my on-line sources say.

 Used sparingly, exclamation points can have impact.  They can jump out at you when you least expect them and jack your jaw.  But if you see them around every turn, they become ridiculous, even annoying.

I blame email, Facebook and everything Internet.  Say someone you know posts a photo of their new baby, and you feel obliged to respond.  It’s no good to say, “Hey, nice looking baby you’ve got there.”  

I’m sure I sound like a fogey railing against a mostly legitimate form of punctuation.  But it’s lazy to sprinkle exclamation points higgly-piggly in one’s prose.  Let’s turn it down a bit, shall we?  And remember that less is more.